Sustainability in fashion is a serious subject, but a new capsule collection from H&M asks: Can sustainability be glamorous? Joyful? Celebratory, even? The new holiday line, made using a variety of recycled fabrics as part of an effort to highlight their dedication to circularity, makes a strong case.
Just on the heels of the UN Climate Change Conference, where global thought-leaders discussed possible solutions for our planet’s increasingly dire future, the Swedish mega-retailer is unveiling a 45-piece collection, dubbed the Innovation Circular Design Story and filled with frilly, festive delights. Landing in select US stores and online on December 16th, it’s meant to not only demonstrate H&M’s ongoing sustainability efforts, but reframe the discussion about sustainable fashion as a whole. Enter the tiers of flouncy polka-dots, explosions of pink pleats, floor-grazing skirts, dramatic capes, a faux fur coat, a moiré pajama set, cat-eye sunglasses, shimmering baubles, and so on. Minimalism, this ain’t.
The striking contrast—holiday jubilation vs. ecological disaster—is the point. “It’s not necessarily what you think of when you think of sustainable materials,” Abigail Kammerzell, H&M’s Sustainability Manager, told Vogue.com. “These collections are really a celebration of fashion and fun and joy, and also showcase the potential of sustainable processes and fabrics.”
Take, for instance, a pair of flared pants bedecked with strap details that are made in collaboration with the company Ambercycle. Last week, I dropped in on that company’s warehouse-like office in an industrial part of downtown Los Angeles, where co-founder Shay Sethi walked me through the process of recycling polyester and poly-blend materials. Ambercycle takes end-of-life garments (bales of old T-shirts that even Goodwill can’t sell, for example) and literally cooks them down (at roughly the same temperature it takes to cook a pizza, I was told), refining and purifying their plastic components until they eventually become little white pellets. Those pill-like balls are then spun out into new textiles, a feat even Rumplestiltskin would have trouble dreaming up. A few fabric swatches at the Ambercycle facilities showed the range of the final product, from downy jerseys to paper-thin ribbed knits. They were impressive, and don’t require the production of any new plastics. For this bit of forward-thinking wizardry, Ambercycle won the H&M Global Change Award in 2016.
Ambercycle is just one of the companies from the growing ecosystem of circular textile production that helped bring this collection to life. There’s cellulosic fibers from Eastman Naia Renew made from wood pulp or hard-to-recycle materials like carpet. Reprieve Our Oceans helped provide polyesters made from plastic water bottles, while Vegea provided leather-like vegan materials made from discarded waste from the winemaking process (grape skins, seeds, and stalks). Kammerzell told me her favorite piece uses some of the most low-tech techniques—a blazer made from repurposed garments that had been returned in store and then re-worked and upcycled, an idea that reminded me of what John Galliano is doing with the Recicla offering at Maison Margiela.
Sethi, of Ambercycle, explained that this collection is important because it brings to life, in a visceral way, the possibilities of the circular clothing economy. He believes that plastic pellets made from bales of old T-shirts are the future of fashion but, let’s be real, they’re not exactly sexy. Fashion lovers may know that sustainability and circularity are profoundly important to the future of our planet, but start talking about recycled polymers and eyes tend to glaze over. Show consumers a shiny lamé frock with a dramatic bow detail instead and suddenly they can see what the future of circularity looks like.
To help give this collection a distinctive look, the editor and stylist Ib Kamara was brought in as a creative director. “Joy and celebration for me are a way for us to go into the new year feeling hopeful,” he said. “In the world we are living in now, joy and celebration are what we all need most. I wanted it to be something that when you see it, you pause and it grabs you. The goal really was to create something that demonstrated, without a doubt, that sustainability can be beautiful.”
You don’t need us to tell you that incorporating sustainability practices is one of the biggest challenges currently vexing the fashion industry. From the growing popularity of high-end resale sites like The RealReal to Stella McCartney’s ongoing work as an advocate for eco-conscious design to Gabriela Hearst’s recent push to make Chloé, where she is creative director, B Corp certified, sustainability can seem to be the stuff of luxury labels. In fact sprawling mass market brands like H&M have a reputation for being the main drivers behind fashion’s environmental problems. But it’s also true that H&M is rising to this moment, creating solutions for the wide swaths of people they sell to. For example, H&M has set the goal to be climate positive and fully circular by 2040, Kammerzell told me. “Sustainability, I would say, is foundational to us,” she said.
It can sound like lip service, fashion just jumping on another trend while it’s hot. But H&M stresses that this isn’t an isolated moment; this holiday collection is their fourth “innovation” collection of the year, and they’ve been working on circularity-focused collections for some time.
“By offering great design,” Kammerzell said, “we’re able to educate our shoppers and talk to the people who are interested in the sustainability practices that are behind the pieces.” So, if you’re looking for some guilt-free showstoppers for your holiday season, H&M has you covered.
H&M’s Innovation Circular Design Story lands globally on December 9th and in the US and Canada on December 16th